In an Eilat taxi a month or two ago, I saw a curious thing. A little way up, in the sandy hills by the sea, was a ghost town. I mean a ghost town in the old-fashioned sense of the phrase - a totally deserted, in fact sealed-off, Wild West-style high street, complete with what looked like a saloon where no cowboys could once pick up a two-shekel hussy. Except that it wasn't, of course, ever a real town. It was, the taxi driver informed me, a deserted film set.
Texas Ranch, as a little Googling reveals the set was called, was used for a stampede of Hollywood westerns before the Americans pulled out and it found life as a kind of theme park. Lack of demand, however, caused its owners to shut up shop.
But here's the irony. The Israeli film industry is, relatively speaking, booming. And I'm not just talking about Israelis, like Marvel Studios' Avi Arad (he's the man behind Spider-Man and the X-Men movies), who find success on other shores. Israelis, born, bred and still native are winning awards and plaudits around the world. Just think of the last four years or so. Waltz With Bashir, Lebanon and on the art-house circuit, Beaufort and Ajami all spring readily to mind as examples of Israel's creative and commercial success. Three of these were Oscar-nominated. There has, it would seem, never been a better time to be an Israeli film-maker.
Or perhaps there has never been a worse time. Because what all of the above mentioned Israeli films have in common is that they are all in some way about the Israeli-Arab-Palestinian conflict. The defining, the most famous, film of all of these is Waltz With Bashir, which the world has seen as a tremendous mea culpa on Israel's part (or rather, on the part of its artistic community, to whom the world's liberal media feel they can relate). Lebanon, if not quite that, was taken to be at least an acknowledgment that - surprise, surprise - war is hell (take that, jingoistic Israeli government!).
The others in the list are in that line. And yet the two finest Israeli films that I have seen recently had nothing to do with the conflict and they both embraced universal themes. Five Hours From Paris is a deeply touching 2009 romance about a man's affair with his child's teacher. It's naturalistic, dark where it needs to be and beautifully acted. And, an Israeli film insider told me, its plans for international release were wrecked by the Gaza War. Nobody wanted to touch anything to do with Israel that didn't itself touch on, you guessed it, the conflict. To date it has had a theatrical roll-out in only four countries outside of Israel (the UK, unsurprisingly, isn't one of them).
Its plans for international release were wrecked by the Gaza War
At the Sundance Film Festival in January, a respectable buzz was building around Restoration, a wonderfully weighted film by Yossi Madmoni. It's about an ageing furniture restorer and his complex relationship with both his son and a mysterious young stranger who seeks to take the son's place.
The themes are Pinteresque, the pace slow but riveting. It won the World Cinema Screenwriting Award at the festival. And it still awaits an international release. I mentioned the film to a buyer for an independent film distributor. "Sounds great," he grimaced, "but Israeli films are… hard to sell."
What he meant is that they're hard to sell if they're not about the conflict. And there's the paradox for Israeli filmmakers. For better or worse, the eyes of the world are on Israel and films that address the Palestinian question will find an eager audience.
At best, that provides a unifying theme for the country's artists. But artists also need to feel free to express themselves on whatever subject move them to create. If Yossi Madmoni is indeed Israel's Harold Pinter, few just now are inclined to notice.